LSU 2001 Preview: DBs

Charlie Harbison, LSU's new defensive backs coach, has spent plenty of time with head coach Nick Saban since Saban hired him earlier this year; it makes sense given Saban's specialty in teaching the finer points of the secondary. Since coming on boar with the Tigers in January, Harbison likes what he has seen from his new boss.

"He's a technician, focused," said Harbison, who spent last season at Alabama. "He understands the field, where receivers lie, and splits. That's good for me. I'm on the same page as him and learn a lot from him. … One thing I respect a great deal about Nick Saban is that you know where he stands. A lot of people can't handle the truth."

These days, at LSU, the truth is that the Tigers need to answer some questions in the defensive backfield, where their safeties seem solid but their cornerbacks seem sporadic.

"We make some good plays at corner, but we make some bad plays, too," Saban said. "We need more consistency from the position. I feel like we have good ability there. We just have to gain experience, knowledge and poise."

No one reflects Saban's comments more than Robert Davis, the Tigers' only senior cornerback. Davis was demonized in 1998, when he tipped two passes against Alabama but watched the deflections go for touchdowns in a heartbreaking 22-16 loss. He was lionized a year later against Arkansas, when he knocked away several deep balls and also had a late-game interception in LSU's 35-10 upset win. Davis started the Tigers' final four games last season opposite Fred Booker.

On the other side, junior Norman LeJeune and sophomore Erin Damond are co-starters heading into fall camp, when they'll continue to battle.

LeJeune didn't play as much in 2000 as he did during his freshman season in '99, when he moved into the drop linebacker position out of necessity. Despite starting only five games that fall, he was sixth on the team with 67 tackles. LeJeune moved to strong safety last year, then switched to cornerback during spring practice. By the end of April, he and Damond were splitting time with the first-team defense.

"Norman really made headway," Harbison noted. "I like big corners. LeJeune is the biggest corner we have, and Damond with his athleticism, we have a tug-o-war at the left side."

Damond, who played four different positions at Bogalusa, participated more than LeJeune last season, particularly toward the end of the year. He started one game and shared time at the right corner with Davis and Demetrius Hookfin.

Of all the Tigers' returning cornerbacks, Hookfin, now a junior, actually played the most last season. He was often chided for spotty play and a tendency to wander, but he is listed as the starter ahead of Davis for the Tulane game.

"I hear people talking about Hookfin not turning around and finding the ball," said Harbison. "But it's a tough position to play. He has games under his belt now. He has a year's experience now. He'll do fine and he'll come back. This past spring he covered well and he made plays."

Ryan Clark, a fifth-year senior, returns as the starting free safety. As vocal as they come, and equally fearless, Clark has been the unquestioned leader of the secondary for two seasons. He also matches his mouth speed with his energy level, which once led Gerry DiNardo to call Clark "The Energizer Bunny." As a sophomore, Clark led the Tigers with 110 tackles. He finished third on the team last fall with 98 total stops, adding two interceptions while playing the deep part of the backfield.

"Great guy," Harbison said. "He's strong-minded. He knows the defense. He's like a coach on the field. One thing about Clark is that he has eyes on the entire backfield, understands formations and that every formation has a personality. You have all these formations, but the guy in the secondary, Clark, has to be a guy who can make the calls.

"Behind Clark is Damien James," Harbison said. "We won't miss a beat when he's in the game."

Before last season, James was best known for his exploits at Carencro High School. One of the most sought-after athletes in the 1998 recruiting class, he made a dramatic oral commitment to LSU during a recruiting event in a Baton Rouge restaurant. Nowadays, James is best known for his heroics last Sept. 9. Trying to cut an 8-point deficit, Houston drove inside the Tigers' 20, but James picked of a tipped pass in the end zone, the first interception of his career. After LSU couldn't run out the clock, James picked off another tipped ball, taking it 56 yards for his first college touchdown and the game-clincher.

"I knew I was going to make it," he said. "Once I got to the outside and saw daylight, there was no looking back."

Lionel "Tiger" Thomas, another senior, figures to start at strong safety once again. Thomas has also been criticized for occasionally getting burned in pass coverage. But to his credit, two different coaching staffs have utilized him extensively at LSU. He was the Tigers' starting drop linebacker in 1999 until the fifth game of the year, when he succumbed to a knee injury at Kentucky. Thomas finished fourth on the LSU defense with 68 total tackles last season.

"He's a strong guy, a run-support guy," Harbison said of Thomas. "We play safety from top down, and he's a quiet guy who leads by example."

Domanick Davis, however, wasn't quiet during the spring. He came to Saban before practice began and asked for a way to get on the field more often, and Saban agreed to let Domanick Davis, a defensive stud in high school, try his hand in the secondary. During spring drills, he proved the move was worthy, showing a knack for making plays and hard hits.

"He's a talent," Harbison said. "A strong guy with a strong mind, he's physical, and has great speed. He's savvy."

If Domanick Davis doesn't answer the bell at strong safety (or if he's used more as a nickel and dime back), sophomore Travis Moses, who spent most of last fall behind Thomas at strong safety, will likely fill the vacancy.

"He got hurt in the spring, but is supposed to rehab and come back into the mix of things when two-a-days start," Harbison said.

IN 2000: Statistically, LSU finished with the ninth-best pass defense in the SEC, allowing an average of 216.2 yards through the air. Enemy quarterbacks completed nearly 55 percent of their throws against the Tigers. Only Kentucky, with five interceptions, had fewer than LSU's nine during the regular season.

IN 2001: The Tigers should feel confident with two senior starting safeties, Ryan Clark and Lionel Thomas. The cornerbacks, however, have been somewhat inconsistent. All of them have started at some point, but not regularly. LeJeune has never started at corner.

ON THE SPOT: Robert Davis. He's the only senior cornerback, but his playing time had decreased until the end of last season. His career has been up-and-down, and the downs have been way down. Offenses may try to pick on him and get inside his head.

THE X-FACTOR: Domanick Davis. It's easy to forget that Davis, who was also a defensive back in high school, was named the Class 3A defensive MVP at Breaux Bridge in 1998. His presence in passing situations will draw plenty of attention from fans, media and opposing coordinators.

LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: In the Tigers' eight wins last season, they intercepted 10 passes to their opponents' five. Only once in those eight wins did LSU intercept fewer passes than its opponents (at Ole Miss, LSU threw two picks; the Rebels threw one). In the Tigers' four losses, they never picked off a pass.


QUOTABLE: "Sometimes in practice you put DBs in certain situations; but you can't simulate everything a DB may go through. Sometimes (if) you give a receiver like Freddie Milons a lot of space, he may make a break. If you guess, nine times out of 10 you'll be wrong. — Charlie Harbison, defensive backs coach

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